The dream of having an inland port and intermodal facility in Crawford County is a step closer to becoming reality with work completed on both an environmental assessment and design of the port, according to Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith.
The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (WAIA) announced in April 2020 it had applied for and received a $450,000 Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant to prepare the design of the port and facility and to conduct the environmental assessment. The grant was an 80/20 matching grant, meaning the EDA provided $360,000 (80%) and WAIA the remaining $90,000 (20%). Each of the four entities that are owners of WAIA — Fort Smith, Van Buren, Sebastian County and Crawford County, contributed $22,500.
In July, the authority agreed to issue two requests for quotes (RFQ) for work to complete an environmental assessment begun by the Arkansas Corps of Engineers in draft form for WAIA of the area they hope to locate a port and for the engineering study. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment was started five years ago, said Pitsch, who is also the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (WAIA) executive director. There are two engineering studies of the site, one by the corps and one private, but the authority needs a more detailed study.
“The first, the one by the corps, was like at 10,000-foot level. It gave a broad look at what we would need,” Pitsch said. “The second brought that down to 5,000, but we still need to determine things like roads, railroad tracks all the stuff an intermodal facility would need.”
The environmental study conducted by FTN Associates looked at approximately 443 acres off of Highway 59 in Crawford County where WAIA hopes to have an inland port an intermodal facility, 268 acres on the west side of Highway 59 (the river side) and 175 acres east of Highway 59. The port will be located on the Van Buren side of the Arkansas River and will service companies in Van Buren, Fort Smith, and the surrounding areas, Pitsch has said. None of the land in the study is owned by WAIA, Pitsch said.
FTN identified 16 features in the project area, totaling approximately 32.33 acres, that are considered wetlands. Of those, 15, totaling approximately 32.18 acres, qualify for US Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Of that, there are:
• Eight jurisdictional herbaceous wetlands – totaling 11.36 acres;
• Two jurisdictional mixed strata wetlands – totaling 1.11 acres;
• Two jurisdictional scrub/shrub wetlands – totaling 4.01 acres; and
• Three jurisdictional forested wetlands – totaling 15.7 acres.
There also is one man-made pond, totaling approximately 3.63 acres, that because of its close association with the Arkansas River is subject to Corps of Engineers jurisdiction and a backwater cove of the Arkansas River, totaling about 5.93 acres, that is subject to corps jurisdiction. No potentially jurisdictional stream channels were observed within the project area.
“The FTN study is basically done. All that needs to be done is to apply for a 404 certificate, which basically is EPA approval. They will need to meet with the corps to mitigate the wetlands,” Pitsch said.
Corps regulations specify that any wetlands developed as part of a project have to be mitigated with equal acreage of wetlands that are “roped off” to be left untouched, he explained. FTN estimates three to six months to get the certificate and approvals.
The design portion of the studies for the port has a bit more to do, Pitsch said. In a report presented to WAIA April 7, Pickering Firm, Inc. and Moffatt & Nichol stating their research shows that a new facility “could provide a new intermodal option that would compete with traditional rail and truck options for facilitating inbound and outbound cargo movements from the region” if the port utilized containerized freight shipping that would carry high value goods and shipped more than once a week.
Although there are three other ports in a 10-mile radius of the location for the new facility, none of which are at capacity for shipping, the WAIA facility would add something valuable to the mix.
“To compare this (facility) with the other ports would be an oxymoron. The other ports ship break-bulk cargo like feed and gravel. We are going to be doing containerized freight like chicken from Tyson and finished goods from others in the area,” Pitsch said.
The containerized shipping would be more comparable to cold storage shipping available through rail or truck shipping, just on the water, because the containers would be equipped with electricity, which allows cooling capacity, Pitsch said.
“We are not trying to cash in on the freights of the other ports,” Pitsch said. “This would be completely different freight.”
The WAIA voted in January 2019 to sign a five-year non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with New Orleans-area Plaquemines Port Harbor and Terminal District and inland waterway shipper American Patriot Container Transport LLC of New Orleans for shipping of containerized freight on the Arkansas River out of Crawford County. That shipping has been postponed until April 2022 to allow for “relay” of a new system of shipping containers to Asia and Europe.
The company has signed a letter of intent and an MOU with a company for overseas freight transport from the port in Plaquemines Parish, La., Pitsch has said. They estimate the port in Plaquemines Parish to be completed in 2022.
American Patriots holdings would carry containerized freight in a much faster time frame than the traditional tug and barge vessels in use out of area ports now, Pitsch said. The vessels produced by American Patriots can cut the time on the water by almost 60% and they only sink into the water about two to three feet, meaning the river would not need to be dredged in order to allow for transport, Pitsch said.
“We don’t really care about the depth of the channel. These things are like jet skis shooting on the river,” he said.
The design study calls for two areas of “opportunities” — an inland port area for shallow draft vessels that includes a harbor and docks, container loading and unloading, intermodal container transfer facility, and truck and rail access along with an economic development area with warehouses, commercial buildings and empty container storage.
American Patriots is in the process of finding a vendor for their inland river ports. Pitsch said ideally WAIA would contract with the same vendor who is with at least some of the other ports along the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers that America Patriots is contracting with, including in Memphis, Cincinnati and Kansas City. That vendor would be who actually builds the port and would be the one responsible for making the facility IOS certified, he said. Vendors or tenants also would be needed for the economic development area of the plan, he said.
Now that the analysis has been completed by Pickering and Moffatt & Nichol, their next step is to formulate a development program and draft concept scenarios. They expect to have initial designs ready in about six months, but final plans would not be completed until a port vendor is found and tweaks any ideas, Pitsch said.